Our outlook on society has been too much in terms of the confessional, and too little in terms of the City of God. A man could avoid the sin of being theologically drunk every night of his life, and give a very poor impression to his neighbours of the Virtue of Temperance. And millionaires are not excommunicated for being millionaires, but no one who is familiar with the blistering phrases of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI can suppose that they are at all pleased that millionaires should exist. I see no reason why the laity should be pleased, either.
The Sun of Justice (1938) by Harold Robbins
The Church’s ancient tradition and modern teaching about private property is profound, challenging, and almost entirely unknown by many Christians today. Whenever I present this teaching in RCIA classes, it is often met with shock and leads to a lot of questions. In my experience, the Church’s teachings on private property are virtually absent from the general Catholic consciousness.
To help correct that problem, here is an overview of that teaching.
To begin with, the Church recognizes that people have a right to private property. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (CSDC) says, “Private property…constitutes one of the conditions for civil liberty” and “is an essential element of an authentically social and democratic economic policy” (CSDC 176).
These principles have been affirmed by many popes, including Leo XIII, who taught in his great social encyclical Rerum Novarum, “private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners” (RN 46). In his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI taught that it is not the state that grants this right, but that “the Creator Himself, has given man the right of private ownership” (QA 45). Indeed, the natural, God-given right to private property is one of the reasons that the Church condemns Communism (cf. QA 111-118).
However, while private property is indeed a natural right, it flows from what the Church calls “the universal destination of goods.” The Catechism says, “The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race” (CCC 2402). Likewise, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council stated, “God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples” (Gaudium et Spes 69).
In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “the ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law, but an addition thereto devised by human reason” (ST II-II, q. 66, a. 2). In other words, private property is the most reasonable means for man to respect the universal destination of goods. It is important to note that when Aquinas argues for the necessity of private property, he does so on pragmatic terms and based upon his understanding of human behavior, such as his assertion that “a more peaceful state is ensured to man if each one is contented with his own. Hence it is to be observed that quarrels arise more frequently where there is no division of the things possessed.” (ST, q. 66, a. 2).
The Church teaches that “The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.” (CCC 2403). Pope Francis restated this principle in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti when he wrote, “The right to private property can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of the universal destination of created goods” (FT 120). The possession of property is “is in its essence only an instrument for respecting the principle of the universal destination of goods; in the final analysis, therefore, it is not an end but a means” (CSDC 177).
Furthermore, the Church recognizes that the right to private property is not absolute. The Compendium states:
“Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable: ‘On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone’” (CSDC 177).
Simply put, the right to own something does not mean the right to use it however one wishes. The use of property is ordered to the common good. The fathers of Vatican II taught, “In using them, therefore, man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others” (GS 69).
In fact, the Church has very clear and direct teachings about the improper use of material goods.
In his 1967 social encyclical Populorum Progressio, Pope Saint Paul VI quotes St. Ambrose saying, “You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich” (PP 23). And in Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis quotes from St. John Chrysostom: “Not to share our wealth with the poor is to rob them and take away their livelihood. The riches we possess are not our own, but theirs as well” (FT 119).
We can say that Catholic Social Teaching divides private property into three levels, or “tiers”: that which is needed for survival, that which is needed for integral human development, and that which is left over after the first two have been satisfied.
The common good demands that the right of every person to the basic necessities of life—food, shelter, healthcare, clothing, etc.—must be respected. As St. Paul VI wrote, “No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life” (PP 23). We are obliged as Christians to provide every person with these fundamental necessities.
The second tier is more subjective than the first because it reflects human needs in light of the person’s vocation or state in life. These needs may be different for every person, depending on their life and family situation. A bachelor in Japan does not have the same needs as a single mom with four kids in Guatemala. What I need to raise a family in rural Michigan is different from the need of a family in New York or a family in rural India. The key here is to promote human flourishing.
Within this tier fall necessities such as dignified work, educational opportunities, the capability to raise and provide for a family, a reasonable quality of life, work-life balance, economic security, and access to cultural and religious opportunities. It also respects the human dignity of those who are disabled, sick, or elderly to fully take part in society and culture.
The third tier is everything else. The excess. This belongs to the poor.
Pope Leo XIII made this point in Rerum Novarum asserting that “when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over” (RN 22).
The Church has repeatedly and explicitly taught that when we give to the poor from our excess we are not performing an act of charity, but an act of justice. If possessing excess wealth is theft from the poor, then giving it away is no more an act of charity than it would be an act of charity for a thief to return a TV to Best Buy after stealing it.
In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict excoriated those who promote unjust economic systems and strategies designed to benefit the rich while the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow: “The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner” (CV 32). In 2015, Pope Francis said, “no one is allowed to keep for their exclusive use things superfluous to their needs, when others lack basic necessities.”
Simply put, a materially simple life—only possessing what one needs for their vocation and state in life—is what Christ expects from his followers. Amassing material wealth and being rich is fundamentally incompatible with the Christian life. Remember, Jesus commanded us: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt 6:19-21).
And as Pope Francis teaches, “if one person lacks what is necessary to live with dignity, it is because another person is detaining it” (FT 119).
Based on Christ’s words, the Church Fathers, and the consistent teaching of the popes, I’m left to conclude that simply being wealthy is per se contrary to the Gospel, regardless of how that wealth was obtained.
We have been baptized priest, prophet, and king. We are other Christs. Our values are different from the world’s values, so our lives ought to look different as well.
We see this explicitly when we look at sexual morality. Scripture and Tradition teach clearly that a Christian is to follow specific moral principles when it comes to sex—principles that the world may not share. St. Paul repeatedly calls upon new Christian converts to cease the sexual excesses of their past life. Now Christ lives in them and they are temples of the Holy Spirit, so their sexual behavior must change as well.
How is money different? The world’s financial values center on material security and growing wealth. But those are not Christ’s values. Followers of Christ are challenged to understand and use money differently from the rest of the world.
When I discuss this when teaching RCIA, a response I’ve received is that the Church spells out—sometimes in explicit detail—sexual sins. The Church lays out all the rules we need to follow. But the Church, it is argued, isn’t as clear about how we should use our money.
This is a reasonable response, but I think it illustrates Harold Robbins’s point in the passage I shared at the top of this article, “Our outlook on society has been too much in terms of the confessional, and too little in terms of the City of God.” Too often the questions we ask ourselves are, “is this a sin?” or “how much do I have to do?” We aren’t asking, “is this the Gospel ideal?” We need to stop thinking in terms of the confessional and start thinking in terms of the Kingdom of God. We need to begin to think about what it means to be another Christ in the world.
The conversion of our hearts and behavior is primarily God’s work, not ours, however. If reading these teachings leads you to feel convicted, or if you find yourself drawn toward a materially simple life, that’s the Holy Spirit already moving your heart. God is already working. Simply open yourself up to him and respond.
The Church is not trying to replace our consciences with lists of rules. The Church is helping us internalize the values of the Gospel so that we can advance the Kingdom of God. The Church is helping us to form our consciences so that we can respond daily to whatever the Holy Spirit asks of us.
Let us go before the Lord in prayer, making ourselves vulnerable and remembering that he is a good and gentle Father. Ask God to show us our own hearts. What are our values, goals, and fears about material possessions?
God wants to free us from the fear of precarity. God wants to give us freedom from the need to be financially secure. He wants us to be free from slavery to money. He wants to free us so that we may be happy regardless of our material circumstances. God wants us to have the freedom to follow him beyond the tether of our own security.
This is God at work. It’s not another list of rules. We are simply being asked to respond to what God is already doing in our hearts. Go before Jesus. Ask him to change your desires so that they are his desires. Ask him to show you the changes he wants you to make. Ask for the strength and desire to do his will. And trust that God’s grace will go before you.
Image credit: “Christ and the Rich Young Ruler,” Heinrich Hofmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.